transcendence: a mirror of china
October 20–November 12, 2006
Li Wei, a short and stocky man, clambered up a metal ladder ten feet, sticking his head deep into a hole in the wall. Two somber assistants using wire pulleys clipped mountaineering carabiners to his waist and feet, causing him to dangle horizontally, his hovering body a metaphor for pre-Olympic China—headless, suspended, and hurtling towards an unknown future.
A few days later I sat down to talk to Wei. He had just completed one of his signature jettisoning his body through space performances atop the roof of a building on Canal Street, appearing to dangle weightless across the downtown skyline. Our conversation was translated by Zhang Zhaohui, a curator and critic who is working on opening the first Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Beijing. Wei, nursing a bleeding gash on his forearm, turned down medical treatment to answer my questions.
Why, I asked, had he been hanging horizontally from the ceiling the previous evening? What did it have to do with contemporary China, or for that matter, with New York? Filling me in on some historical detail, he explained that since 2003 the official Chinese government attitude towards performance art has relaxed, especially as officials seek more international cachet and recognition. Originally trained as a painter, Wei has produced an unsettling series of self-portraits involving his face reflected in mirrors in public places, and photographs of himself crashing into walls and sidewalks, many of which are included in the exhibition. He also has a number of photos where he seems to free fall from tall buildings—pictures that resemble the famous photograph of the French artist Yves Kline hurtling out a window. He creates these hair-raising performances to convey his continual sense of lost gravity, resulting from China’s hypersteroid pace of opening to the outside world. The new China is coming face to face with globalization, differing economic systems and shifting political landscapes. The identity of the good Communist comrade of the past has evaporated, producing a whiplash of anxiety. A new class struggle is re-emerging between the rural poor and the big city nouveau riche. Ethnic minorities like the Uyghur Muslims are reasserting their cultural identities while North Korea is detonating nuclear weapons on China’s doorstep. The environment is continually being degraded. The most immediate, visceral response to all of this for young artists is live action and performance art coupled with images from technology and 3-D gaming. Performance directly bypasses centuries of traditional painting and sculpture to deliver extremely modern imagery (though Wei felt that in the 1960s and 1970s contemporary art was linked more closely to text).
In the 1980s the first performance art trickled into China. Works by Christo inspired a frenzy of ersatz Great Wall of China wrappings. But artists have moved beyond these first clumsy attempts and are now grappling with their responsibility to provide a new type of art. However, having jumped over the chasm of propagandistic Social Realism, landing directly into the jaws of postmodernism, many artists are debating whether this breakneck pace is too fast. They wonder if they are producing pieces that are just a mimicry of the west.
So, in a roundabout way, this is the reason why Li Wei stuck his head into the wall in a gallery on Canal Street. It is also the reason he continues to stick his head into obstructing surfaces or fragmented mirrors, and appears to fly/fall/float out from buildings and rooftops. He is the new China lost, a China without gravity.